When most people think of crappie fishing, they think of their favorite lake.
When Shane Eustice thinks of summertime crappie fishing, he thinks of his favorite trees in the middle of his favorite lake – El Dorado Reservoir.
“This is what I call an ambush spot, where the crappie can move up and get right down in the old root wads or around the limbs,” Eustice said as he slowed his boat and dropped an electric motor into the water.
“It's near deeper water so these fish can move up and down when they want to feed. There's a tremendous about of bait for them right now on El Dorado.”
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As if on cue, a school of several hundred fingerling shad came to the surface a few yards away.
The bow of Eustice's boat was tied to one of the trees when he lowered a jig down along the trunk. Within minutes he felt a tap and pulled a small channel cat aboard his boat. A few minutes after that he pulled up the first crappie of the evening.
For most anglers, crappie fishing is just a few weeks every spring, catching the great-tasting panfish when they move shallow. When they leave the shallows, most anglers leave them alone.
Eustice will fish anytime he gets a chance, 12 months of the year and any time of the day. He's not shy about fishing in the heat of the summer, though he often limits his angling to the last three hours of daylight. That's when the wind usually begins to lay down, the temperature drops and he's put in a full day at the office.
Friday was one of several evenings recently when he, sometimes with a buddy, had gone out crappie fishing. On previous trips he had gotten into nice numbers of fish, usually a dozen or more keepers up to 15 inches, or a bit better.
One look at the water Friday afternoon had him a bit concerned. Heavy storms the night before had pushed a lot of new water into the reservoir and clouded what had been clear a few days before.
Unlike many anglers, Eustice said he prefers his crappie spots have some color to the water rather than being perfectly clear. It's not the only way Eustice, owner of Hook 'em Guide Service, differs from most anglers.
“Most people think you have to go really deep to catch crappie in the heat of the summer, 25 or 30 feet, but I know better,” Eustice said. “While they're going deeper and deeper, I'm going shallower and shallower.”
On Friday, Eustice started fishing in 16 feet of water, but had out enough line to only have his jigs about seven feet below the surface. He fished straight down from the tip of his rod.
Again bucking the norm, Eustice isn't a fan of ultra-tiny lures for crappie, like 1/16 ounce, or even 1/32 ounce. At the end of his line are 1/4 ounce jig heads with two-inch plastic bodies.
Eustice said he likes the heavier lures because it gets his baits down to where they need to be faster and gives him a better feel if the jigs hit the bottom or encounter a tree branch underwater.
Most of his plastic lure bodies are made up of at least two colors and are about two inches long. He has several different colors on lines at any one time, so he can experiment until he finds the color that works best that day.
He fished with a seven-foot spinning rod in each hand, giving the line little bumps and twitches with his hand. If he felt the lure come up against the bottom of a submerged branch, Eustice could usually just lower the line, move the rod tip a few feet and the lure would be free.
It’s not uncommon for the jig to smack into a branch a few times, then a crappie hit it as soon as Eustice gets it freed.
Rather than fish one of the many clusters, or long lines, of flooded timber at El Dorado, Friday evening he fished some smaller spots.
“I call these my tournament spots because when I'm fishing a tournament I know I can usually come up here and catch some nicer crappie,” he said. “There may not be a lot of fish on these small spots, but the ones that are here are usually nice.
“When I'm in a tournament I'm looking for those 15-inch crappie.”
He has another hot-weather pattern for huge crappie many anglers would never think to try – fishing water as shallow as two feet or less on sweltering hot days.
Eustice said one of his favorite ways of fishing in the summer is to take a smaller boat up rivers and creeks, using a nine-foot rod to lower jigs around any brush, trees or rocks he can find in the shallows. Most people would be surprised, he said, at just how many of a lake's biggest crappie spend most of their summers far from the deep waters of the main lake.
“It's best if the water's kind of dirty, and the hotter it gets the shallower they get,” Eustice said. “It blows people's minds to go out when it's 103 degrees and hammer big crappie in two feet of water, but I promise you it can happen, a lot.”
Friday’s trip was in the large boat he uses when fishing open lakes for walleye. He bounced from spot to spot where the water was less than 16 feet deep, fishing about half the depth. One of the keys is to find the depth the fish prefer.
“Most people start with their jig on the bottom, fishing it for a while then reeling it up a couple of feet,” he said. “I'm just the opposite in that I'll start pretty shallow, fish a depth and if they're not there I'll pull out another foot or so of line.”
About seven feet below the surface seemed to be the best depth for crappie Friday evening. Eustice hit a few isolated spots looking for trophy-sized crappie. He predicted he would have found more numbers if he had fished areas of deeper water.
After catching eight crappie, including three between 14 and 15 inches, Eustice headed mid-lake and tried trolling for walleye. As he trolled, he came across a friend, Shane Spires, who had been fishing flooded trees at the lake all day. He had caught 25 crappie, suspended out over deeper water.
Eustice pulled crankbaits behind his boat trolling for walleye. Last Saturday he and some clients had caught nine longer than the lake's 21-inch minimum length limit. On Friday, none of the four stretched as long. He said it has been a tough year for many walleye fishermen at El Dorado, so he didn't push the issue.
There was about an hour of daylight left when Eustice reeled in the trolling rigs and fired up his outboard. Again, he was headed for flooded trees and his favorite fish.
“I've gotten to where I'd rather fish for crappie than about anything,” he said, “any time of the year.”